By Paul Hemsley
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has been forced into an embarrassing backflip over retrospective cuts to the state’s solar feed-in tariff after a severe electoral backlash took the state government by surprise.
The Barnett government had planned to slash the solar feed-in tariff by 20 cents by July 2014 as part of the state’s 2013-14 Budget but this week scrapped the cuts amid widespread community anger.
The reversal is a potential step shift for both the solar industry and the conservative side of politics in in Australia.
The domestic generation of photovoltaic solar power to feed into the grid has traditionally been characterised by conservatives an uneconomical, boutique and novelty source of energy favoured by environmentalists.
But challenge for the Barnett government is that in the sundrenched West, the technology appears to be making a real difference to electricity consumer’s bills when it comes to running essential creature comforts like air-conditioning.
The public outcry over retrospectively scrapping the feed-in tariff began when the Western Australian government handed down its Budget details on 8th August, 2013 that a ‘Fiscal Action Plan’ that aimed to reduce the feed-in tariff customer payment rate from the present 40 cents per kilowatt hour to from 1st October 2013 and a further reduction to 20 cents from 1st July 2014.
The solar industry reacted immediately to the cut because of the real risk of people losing interest in investing in the technology because financial incentives to do so would be wiped out by the potential lack of a viable financial returns for sending energy back into the grid.
Angry solar groups branded the Budget decision a “betrayal” of the 75,000 households that signed a contract with the state government and invested their own money into the technology and expected a financial return – a large number of voter hip pockets to hit in anyone’s language.
Solar lobby group Solar Citizens immediately set-up a petition to ram home consumer displeasure to the state government, and collected signatures from 8,800 “angry solar owners.” The group also referred hundreds of solar owners to politicians who were called, sent e-mails and directly alerted to the potential for legal action.
It didn’t take long to gauge the volume and vigour of voter outrage. Just four days after cutting the feed-in tariff the decision was reversed on 12th August, 2013 and was accompanied by the humble admission that “we got this decision wrong and we have to fix it”.
“We have listened, and we appreciate the commitment that many people have made to take up renewable energy, like solar power,” Mr Barnett said
He said that the government makes many decisions in casting the State Budget and at all times “we are trying to achieve a balance on behalf of all West Australians”.
“We understand that this measure would have had an unfair impact on one section of the community and it has to be reversed,” Mr Barnett said.
The decision to reverse the feed-in tariff cut received warm praise from Solar Citizens as its campaign manager Dr Geoff Evans said that solar owners in Western Australia are glad to hear that Mr Barnett recognised that he made the wrong decision.
“Solar owners in WA stood together and demanded that Barnett reverse this immense betrayal,” Dr Evans said.
Dr Evens then made a commitment that Solar Citizens will be “keeping an eye” on Western Australia to ensure that the Barnett government doesn’t attempt to “undermine the rights” of solar users.
“Barnett, and all Australian Governments and political parties, should take this lesson: solar owners are not just lovers of solar power. They are voters who bite back when threatened by bad policy,” Dr Evans said.
Solar Citizens wasn’t alone in its praise of Mr Barnett’s decision to reverse the Budget policy, as Australian Solar Council chief executive John Grime said the Premier has listened to the Western Australian community and has heard the “very strong concerns” of the solar industry.
“Our job now is to ensure that all governments hear the community's voice and back away from any similar changes,” Mr Grime said.
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